Sunday, November 14, 2010

Won't You Be My Neighbor...

"I met Patti because later, I, myself, came to feel isolated among those
same neighbors. I met Patti because at some point it seemed
both absurd and wasteful to be living unconnected to
the people all around me."

Recently, I read Peter Lovenheim's book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time and had a chance to reflect on my own neighborhood experiences.

Some of my earliest memories involve the neighborhood where I grew up. From the time I can remember until my freshman year of high school, my family lived in a 3-bedroom house in a suburb of Cleveland. Our street was relatively quiet because my brother and two sisters were some of the only kids on the street and most of our neighbors were older people. We played roller hockey in the street, freeze tag across the lawns that flanked our own, and staged shows in our front yard--our neighborhood was our world. There was never a time when we did not know all of our neighbors--they were always invited to the parties my parents threw (and even if they did not come, they were at least informed of the party and warned about the noise), we were often sent to one house or another for sugar or milk, and we always knew that we could never get away with anything crazy because there were always neighbors watching out for us. We moved from that house when I was a freshman in high school (with four kids, one full bathroom, and three bedrooms, we needed more space) and I was completely devastated, but not necessarily because we would be leaving the house itself (I then shared a bedroom with my two younger sisters and would be getting my own room at the new house), but because we would have to leave our street. Throughout the years of living there, my family had cultivated friendships and relationships with our neighbors that meant a lot to me--one of our next door neighbors was to become my Confirmation sponsor--and that street held a lot of memories for my family. Looking back, it was the perfect set-up for growing up and it really taught my siblings and I how to be good neighbors ourselves, and in moving, I think that I was the saddest to lose the sense of community that we had garnered there.

Although I was really sad to leave my childhood home, there was certainly nothing to worry about when it came to a neighborhood feeling. We moved closer to Lake Erie, about a mile from the old house, where the streets surrounding us make up Utopia Beach Club, a park, pool, and clubhouse that sit at the end of our street to which people pay yearly membership fees. The beach club is comprised of six streets of homes and is a big part of life there. UBC hosts activities all year round from spaghetti dinners, to Sunday morning breakfasts, to celebrations for Memorial Day and Labor Day, to a "welcome back to summer" Family Day complete with games and dancing. Through events such as these and the general welcoming nature of the neighborhood, there is a certain unique community that has blossomed there--everyone knows everyone (which has its pros and its cons) and to my own amazement, people are astounded by the neighborhood. I have often brought home friends to parties and events at UBC and usually they make some kind of statement about how they never knew their neighbors growing up. Because of my own wonderful experiences in my neighborhoods growing up, I never realized that most people do not have the support system of a friendly neighborhood.

A few months ago, I came across Peter Lovenheim's book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. The premise of the book stems from Lovenheim's own neighborhood in a suburb of Rochester, New York where, in 2000, a man committed murder-suicide, killing his wife then himself while his two children were int he house. This family lived several houses down from Lovenheim, and in hearing about the tragedy, he realized that he had never said more than two words to anyone of that household, further realizing that he did not know or speak to any of his neighbors. This realization led Lovenheim to attempt to initiate contact with his neighbors one a time, getting to know them, then (for the purposes of research and his book) often spending the night at their houses, getting an intimate glimpse of their true lives. The neighborhood is relatively affluent and is home to physicians, business owners, and other well-paid professionals, but no one knew each other, and Lovenheim found through his interviews that people would rather get in their car and drive to the store for sugar rather than ask their neighbors for some. Lovenheim begins his "getting to know the neighborhood" study with an older man who is a retired physician and widower, following him around on a normal day, talking with him, and spending the night at his home. Over the next couple of years, Lovenheim visits several neighbors, one of whom is terminally ill, and begins to cultivate a community out of these people who live so close to one another.

The journey that Lovenheim takes is really amazing, but also one that evokes a sense of sadness in me. I cannot imagine living in a place where I was not able to run to my neighbor's house for a cup of sugar (or more often as it happened in my own case, to share a new book or have a drink), and it makes me sad that there are people who don't know their neighbors. In my opinion, growing up in a strong supportive neighborhood was the best situation for my family. Currently, my parents live next-door to my own best friend's family, and there is rarely a day that goes by that our parents don't talk. When baseball season starts, you would be hard-pressed to find a Friday night where my dad is not sitting out on our front patio with a beer in his hand, listening to the Tribe game with a circle of neighbors who drop by to stop for a drink, to listen the game, or just some friendly conversation. The people in UBC don't all necessarily get along all the time--just because they all live in the same place does not make them any different from anyone else--but knowing that there are people around who look out for you and are on your side is a wonderful thing and that is what Lovenheim tries to establish in his own neighborhood, and to a certain degree, it works. The woman he meets who was terminally ill becomes friends with the widower and they are able to help each other in different ways--the woman provides a companionship and purpose for the man, and the man is able to drive the woman and do odd jobs for her. And that's really what neighborliness is about--being able to look out for others while knowing that others are looking out for you. Knowing the people around you and caring to know them creates a community of all of us, dragging us from the isolation of our own bubbles and making us responsible for the well-being of that community.

Peter Lovenheim's book is a very easy and interesting read, one that makes me wish even more that I knew my neighbors in my current neighborhood. In a world where people don't sit out on their front porches anymore and no one knows their neighbors, his book shines a light on the small ways that we can make the world a better place, one where we share responsibility in looking out for others and helping people out when we can.

Keep Reading,

PS. I'm so bad at updating this... but don't worry... I will have a post about my year in reading! Those are always my favorite posts! :)

1 comment:

  1. Hi Stephanie. I concur that I can't relate to most people who have no sense of what its like to live in a great neighborhood. Its always been a contstant in my life. But I also feel that we are both both pretty biased in that we have very stable families and that's a big part in feeling comfortable in your surroundings etc. I sometimes feel that I have missed out in that I haven't spread my wings in more ways but looking back I think that family and friends are no doubt more important and life fulfilling than anything I can think of.
    thanks for making me think about it.
    PLEASE PLEASE send some book suggestions as I'm in such a rut in reading right now. It's seasonal for me...once fall hits I can't get through a that normal??? what's my problem Ms. Librarian? Cheers and Happy Thanksgiving!